AUBURN — Children at the Booker T. Washington Community Center were out Friday morning dirtying their hands while tending to the center's garden.
The young learners planted tomatoes, lettuce, collards and other produce along with facility personnel, volunteer gardener Sue Hodson, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cayuga County Community Nutrition Coordinator Rebecca Crawford and Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Services Manager Andrea VanBeusichem.
Since spring of last year, Crawford and VanBeusichem have been leading a gardening program for the Auburn center's students, teaching them about subjects ranging from the structure of plants to how birds' beaks pierce seed casings.
The garden received $800 from Finger Lakes Eat Smart New York for the wood to build six raised beds that make up the garden and a mixture of compost and top soil to fill it, plus other materials. The wildlife refuge also donated funds for the garden, and other donations — like mulch from the city of Auburn — were received as well. Crawford said an inmate work crew from the Cayuga County Jail helped fill in the beds. Meanwhile, a garden with plants that attract pollinators was also established last year. It is a recognized monarch butterfly way station.
Through the program, Crawford and VanBeusichem have also been working in the food garden with the center's students. Skyler Liddle, 15, who has also worked in his grandmother's garden, said he loves gardening. At one point, VanBeusichem struggled to remove a tomato plant from its plastic container, so she handed it to Liddle, who promptly plucked out the plant.
VanBeusichem said the students have largely taken to the work and the learning involved in the gardening program. Even if a student isn't 100-percent receptive at first, she continued, they are willing to give something a try. She said she has enjoyed working with the junior gardeners.
"They really got into it and really were just working hard," she said.
VanBeusichem said she was inspired to get involved at Booker T. Washington by another purpose of the gardening program there: helping feed local children. Like the backpack programs Port Byron and other districts employ, the center's garden produces food that will go to the plates of students in need.
Brandon Wakeham, the center's program director, said the facility's cook, "Miss" Bessie Williams, had a lot of input on what was planted into the garden.
"She's going to take a lot of this and harvest it, cook it and we'll use it in our summer day camp," Wakeham said.
He said anything left over will be given to the students so they can take it home.
Wakeham is thrilled the center's students are gaining gardening knowledge.
"It's a great experience for them. It teaches them they can grow their food and do it at home," Wakeham said. "They can take all this knowledge and bring it home to their families."
Crawford said she believes children get physical activity, life skills and other advantages out of gardening.
"Something Andrea and I have have both tried to get them to do (is) to be more aware of their surroundings, what's around them. Like, 'What is chewing on that? How do you stop that? You've got a hailstorm, you've got damage, how do we fix that? We haven't had rain in a long time, we have to water (the plants). It's getting to be the end of summer, what do we do now?'"
In addition to introducing young people to ways they can feed themselves, Crawford said planting foods encourages children to try the food they had a hand in creating.
"You're going to increase the likelihood that they eat the pea that they pick," Crawford said.
VanBeusichem said Pete Cramer, co-founder of the Auburn Permaculture Park, helped her and Crawford learn about gardening techniques.
"(Cramer)'s really knowledgeable and really passionate about kids learning this kind of thing," VanBeusichem said.
Cramer and Permaculture Park co-founder Erin Humphrey have also been working with children there, teaching them about gardening in the process.
Student Samantha "Sam" Miles, 15, said she has been enjoying the gardening volunteer work at Booker T. Washington.
"I've always liked the thought of nature and doing this stuff, because it takes nothing and makes food," Miles said. "You can't see that energy, and it makes it into food."